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Book Review: Waking Up in Eden

by Julie Schwietert Sep 29, 2009
In pursuit of an impassioned life on an imperiled island

There’s something appealing—especially to Matador readers—about the narrative of someone who has it all—the coveted job, a nice house that’s been paid for, a satisfying social life—chucking it to explore a completely different path.

Most of Matador’s editorial team has done just that, as have a number of our community members and MatadorU students, including JoAnna Haugen and Amiee Maxwell.

So we tend to like books like Lucinda Fleeson’s Waking Up in Eden, a memoir of her transition from a respected big city reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer to her time as a cottage-dwelling employee of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai, Hawaii who wasn’t welcomed warmly or easily by her peers.

The best part of this book isn’t Fleeson’s own story, though — even the part where she gives herself over to a brief but passionate sexual fling with a local surfer.

Instead, it’s the parts where she takes a journalistic approach to the other subject of the book, the Eden referred to in the title. Hawaii’s plant life—its story of invasion, resistance, and near extinction—is a metaphor for Hawaii’s social and cultural history, over which Fleeson demonstrates a knowledgeable command.

She’s able to choose some of the best anecdotes about the islands’ people and plants to help make this history real to readers and, importantly, to make Hawaii matter to a country that has often allowed the geographic distance of the islands translate into a distance of identity and relationship as well.

It seems particularly appropriate that Fleeson’s book was published this year, the 50th anniversary of Hawaii’s incorporation into the U.S. as the country’s 50th state. Perhaps her gentle insistence that Hawaii is worth our attention as more than a vacation destination will encourage readers to nurture a deeper interest in the islands.

And that would be the very best part of her book.

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